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University casts light on shady reputation of thieving magpies

A magpie is unlikely to take a shine to your jewellery and might even be frightened by it, research has shown.

In a series of experiments, scientists debunked the common myth that magpies are inveterate trinket thieves.

They found that far from being attracted to shiny objects, the black and white birds tended to avoid them.

The tests were carried out at Exeter University both on wild magpies and a group of the birds housed at a rescue centre. They were exposed to shiny and non-shiny items and their reactions recorded.

Lead researcher Dr Toni Shephard, from the university's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, said: "We did not find evidence of an unconditional attraction to shiny objects in magpies. Instead, all objects prompted responses indicating neophobia - fear of new things - in the birds.

"We suggest that humans notice when magpies occasionally pick up shiny objects because they believe the birds find them attractive, while it goes unnoticed when magpies interact with less eye-catching items. It seems likely, therefore, that the folklore surrounding them is a result of cultural generalisation and anecdotes rather than evidence."

The magpie's tarnished reputation runs through folklore, literature and music. Rossini's opera The Thieving Magpie, first performed in 1817, tells the story of a servant girl wrongly accused of silver thefts committed by a magpie.

Magpies have traditionally been regarded as bearers of bad omens. Here, a magpie near a window is sometimes said to be a harbinger of death.

Contextual targeting label: 
Hobbies and general interest

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